Social Science blog

4 posts from March 2014

28 March 2014

Introducing: Chatham House Online Archive

Ian Cooke, Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics at the British Library, writes:

Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics

One of the most rewarding things about working for the British Library is the chance to select new materials and resources to add to our collections. At the start of this year, I’ve been excited about one of our new digital acquisitions: the Chatham House Digital Archive. This brings together hundreds of thousands of pages of published and unpublished research on international affairs, from the founding of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) up to 1979. From next year, this coverage will extend to 2008.

Researchers and others interested in international affairs, diplomacy and world politics and trade will find much of relevance and interest – including material that has previously been hard to find and access. Perhaps most exciting is the digitisation of transcripts, and in some cases audio recordings, of public meetings (those not held under “Chatham House rule”) – which include speakers such as the historian Arnold Toynbee, Dr David Owen (speaking in 1977 on nuclear non-proliferation), Lord Trevelyan, and Hugh Mackintosh Foot, ambassador to the United Nations (1964- 1970). One of the strengths of an archive such as this is that it records debate and analysis of events as they are unfolding. The long time period covered, means that this includes inter-war diplomacy, the founding of the United Nations, Cold War international relations, the role of NATO, and Britain’s position in Europe.

The Royal Institute of International Affairs had its origins in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where British and American delegates discussed the idea of an institute to study foreign affairs as a way to prevent future wars. The British Institute of International Affairs was founded in 1920, becoming the Royal Institute in 1926. The name ‘Chatham House’, by which it is better known today, comes from the building it has occupied in London since 1923. The house, on St James Square, is named after a previous occupant, William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham. Today, the Institute is one of the leading think tanks in the world on international affairs, hosting events and conducting research on international security, health, economics, energy and the environment, and law.

As well as the speeches and meetings, the digitised archive includes all the published books and journals of the Institute, including International Affairs, Documents of International Affairs (1928- 1963), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Refugee Survey (1939-1945), and British Commonwealth Relations Conferences (1933- 1965).   

The digital archive is available now in our Reading Rooms at St Pancras, London, and Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

21 March 2014

The Annual Equality Lecture

This year we will hold the fourth annual Equality Lecture with the British Sociological Association on the 30 May. This series has been a brilliant way for leading sociologists and social scientists to present their research on key issues in equality to a public audience. This year, we are delighted that our speaker will be Dr Tom Shakespeare, a senior lecturer in medical sociology at the University of East Anglia and disability rights advocate. Tom will be talking about ‘Enabling Equality: from disabling barriers to equal participation’ to explore what it takes to achieve equality for disabled people, in the era of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ‘welfare reform’.

Tom’s research interests centre on disability studies and bioethics and his publications include: The Sexual Politics of Disability (1996), Genetic Politics (2002) and Disability Rights and Wrongs (2006). He has worked at the World Health Organization in Geneva where he helped write and edit the World Report on Disability (WHO 2011). Tom has been involved in the disability movement for 25 years.

Jon Legge TWS head shoulders SMALL
Above: Dr Tom Shakespeare. Photograph © Jon Legge.

Last year, the speaker at this event was Professor Danielle Allen, from the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, who spoke about what is needed from society in order for an egalitarian model of politics to be successful. Her talk ‘The Art of Association: the formation of egalitarian social capital’ is available via YouTube and below:


In 2012, Professor Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, spoke on the subject of ‘What’s so good about being more equal?’ Much of Danny’s work is available on open access via his website: Danny’s lecture is also available via YouTube.

The first speaker in the series was Professor Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham and co-founder of The Equality Trust, who spoke on the topic of the best-selling book (co-authored with Professor Kate Pickett) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone'. The first lecture in the series was hugely popular and was a fantastic start to the whole series.

This year Tom's lecture will be accompanied by live subtitles provided by STAGETEXT. For more information and a link to the booking options, please visit the British Library’s What’s On pages.

Useful information

Remember that books by the speakers listed here are available via the British Library’s collections. Begin searching here and find out about how to get a reader pass here. The British Sociological Association lists their events here.

14 March 2014

Beyond Nature versus Nurture

On the evening of 11th March we held the public event ‘Beyond Nature versus Nurture’ which examined how the field of epigenetics has enabled scientists and social scientists to gain clearer idea of how environmental factors get ‘under the skin’ to change the way genes are expressed and cells behave. The evening examined how the dichotomy of nature / nurture as two opposed explanations for human behaviour and outcomes cannot be upheld with the knowledge we now have from the life sciences and social sciences. It showed how the sciences and social sciences can usefully work together to better understand differences between individuals and groups of people. The event was part of the series of events that have been organised to support the ‘Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight’ exhibition at the British Library (free, and on until 26 May).

George Davey Smith, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Bristol, was our first speaker for the evening. He introduced the audience to the different factors which can influence the expression of genes, from events at the cellular level of the individual, to the experiences of our ancestors, which have been of particular interest to those working in epigenetics (see also Hughes’ article, below). In particular, Davey Smith described how ‘chance’ and random events in an individual’s life may account for health outcomes that could not easily be predicted by epidemiology. He talked about how the element of ‘chance’ in human life is an issue for other disciplines which aim to understand life trajectories, health and make predictions about outcome. The element of chance and unpredictability in human life seemed an optimistic line of enquiry to pursue given the constant bombardment of stories about known ‘risks’ in our press and media! George’s work has also considered the complexity of the interactions that development and environment can have on human health outcomes over a lifetime and how these factors are often hard to dissect.

Panel and Audience WEB

Above: panel and audience at 'Beyond Nature vs. Nurture' on 11 March 2014. © The British Library Board.

Nikolas Rose, Professor of Sociology and Head of the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King's College London, began his talk with a brief history of the nature versus nurture dichotomy, tracing the influence of this particular conceptualisation on the development of (for instance) eugenic policies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He described the lasting and negative effects of controversial concepts such as eugenics on the relationship between the life sciences and the social sciences. Yet, Rose was optimistic for the future of the relationship between the disciplines, citing developments in epigenetics and epidemiology as exciting and with considerable potential for the different disciplines to work together. He described his own recent work about the impact of urban living on the individual psyche which takes into account the external environment of the city and its impact on the internal environment of the body. This project, which immediately made me think of Georg Simmel’s, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, offers potential for finding transformative ways for the life sciences and social sciences to work together.

Thus, overall, the messages of the evening were optimistic ones. Many of us left thinking about the potential for more interdisciplinary events at the British Library and were rather less concerned than we may have been before about the potential damage we have done to our bodies (thinking that we may be one of the lucky ones that ‘chance’ favours!). I was reminded to really not pay too much attention to all the press interpretations of research on ‘risk’ (a message also clear in one of our previous ‘Myths and Realities’ events), but to rather consider the evidence from well-established epidemiological research about factors that can affect health risks and outcomes (such as smoking and lung cancer). It also seemed about time to dig out those A level Biology text books, as my scientific colleague kindly told me that stochastic pretty much means ‘random’. I’m going to have to look up DNA methylation though…!

Thanks to our speakers, and to the chair, Professor Jane Elliott, Head of the Department of Quantitative Social Science, for a stimulating evening at the British Library.

Further reading

Davey Smith, George. (2012) ‘Epidemiology, epigenetics and the ‘Gloomy Prospect’: embracing randomness in population health research and practice’. International Journal of Epidemiology, 40(3) pp. 537-562. Available online:

Hughes, Virginia. (2014) ‘The Sins of the Father’. Nature. V. 507. 6 March 2014. pp. 22 – 24.

Renton, Caroline. L. & Davey Smith, George. (2012) ‘Is Epidemiology ready for epigenetics?’ International Journal of Epidemiology, 41(1) pp.5-9. Available online:

Rose, Nikolas. (2012) ‘The Human Sciences in a Biological Age’. Theory, Culture and Society, 0(0) pp. 1 – 32.

05 March 2014

Spring 2014 events

Robert Davies, Engagement Support Officer for Social Sciences writes:

Each year the Social Sciences department at the British Library holds and hosts a wide programme of events related to the subject areas we cover: from one-day workshops, seminars and conferences aimed at academics, early-career researchers, PhD students and practitioners, to public talks and debates.

This Spring 2014, we are organising, with external partners, two major conferences and the 4th British Sociological Association/British Library Annual Equality Lecture.

On 28 April, a one-day conference ‘Portraying Ageing: Cultural Assumptions and Practical Implications’ takes place. The conference will bring together academics from across the social sciences and arts and humanities, plus policy makers and practitioners, to discuss the many ways in which age and ageing are portrayed and understood and explore how insights from research can be translated into policy and practice. We are delighted to be working with colleagues from the School of Language, Linguistics and Film, Queen Mary, University of London and the Centre for Policy on Ageing. There is a great line up of speakers and the keynote address will be given by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies, Birkbeck and columnist at the Guardian.

On 23 May, in association with the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University, we will be holding a one day international conference aimed at academics and postgraduate students interested in the material culture, history and globalisation of the football world cup.  For further details of the speakers and to reserve a ticket go to the ‘A Cultural History of the World Cup’ booking page on the British Library website.

This year’s British Sociological Association/British Library Annual Equality Lecture will be delivered by medical sociologist and disability rights advocate Dr Tom Shakespeare. The title of the lecture is ‘Enabling Equality: from disabling barriers to equal participation’. Dr Shakespeare will explore ‘where next for disability equality’ in the era of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ‘welfare reform’? He will examine what is needed for people with diverse disabilities to flourish and will argue that the state needs to do more than simply ‘level the playing field’. The lecture will be held on 30 May in the British Library Conference Centre.  Tickets can be obtained via the British Library What’s On pages.

During the spring we are also hosting the Social Research Association’s conference on Social Media in Social Research on 16 May (details of the programme will appear on the SRA’s events page) and one on the impact of austerity for the University of East London (on 30 May – details to be provided soon).

To keep up-to-date with the events we have in the pipeline for summer 2014, watch this space or visit the events pages on where you will also find links to podcasts and film recordings of many of our past events.